OPED: Clinton fixation should worry us all

Cass R. Sunstein
Tribune News Service

During his presidency, Barack Obama was under considerable pressure to initiate prosecutions against officials in the George W. Bush administration. Even before taking office, Obama strongly signaled that he would not do this, suggesting that "we need to look forward as opposed to looking backward." In 2009, he added, "At a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."

As late as 2015, Human Rights Watch argued for "the opening of new investigations," complaining that criminal prosecutions of Bush officials were obligatory under international law, above all for what it described as "torture" by the Central Intelligence Agency. It contended that without prosecutions of Bush-era officials, the legacy of the Obama administration would be "forever poisoned."

Those are strong words, but the Obama administration resisted such arguments. It was right to do so.

Prosecuting political rivals and their associates is a tactic of authoritarians, and it reeks of authoritarianism. It suggests that political victors will not be content to have won; they will bring the force of the criminal law against those they have defeated.

That suggestion is dangerous to self-government and political liberty. It tells people who dissent, or who support rivals to current leaders, that they might be at risk. It turns opposition into an act of courage, rather than an exercise of rights.

 Whenever national prosecutors pursue a political opponent of their president, many people will ask, naturally enough: What is the real motivation here?

Such prosecutions have the additional vice of intensifying a nation's political divisions. They suggest that one side has been led by criminals, possibly even traitors. They announce to the millions of people who supported the president's political opponent: You favored a crook.

For purely partisan reasons, some people will cheer any such prosecution, and others will rage and mourn. After an election, it is far better to accept Abraham Lincoln's suggestion, offered in a time of Civil War, that we should "bind up the nation's wounds."

These points raise an obvious question: Why is Trump fixated, nearly a year into his presidency, on prosecuting Hillary Clinton? I think I know the answer, and it is unfathomably sad.

As George Orwell depicts it in "1984," Big Brother focuses the public on his opponent Emmanuel Goldstein's misdeeds and the continuing threat he poses. As citizens see Goldstein's face on a screen, they break out into "uncontrollable exclamations of rage," followed by a "hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer."

Orwell's ominous words suggest that every human heart is vulnerable to that ecstasy. "The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in." (Think of what happens on contemporary social media.)

For Big Brother, the Two Minutes Hate is shrewd politics. It is a diversion from issues of policy and from problems that people face in their ordinary lives. It focuses citizens' attention on a malevolent, even demonic force, who continues to threaten them.

Of course, Orwell was producing a caricature, and Donald Trump, freely elected in a system with checks and balances, is no Big Brother. But politicians on the right and the left, and in both democratic and undemocratic societies, have found it useful, or irresistible, to identify their own Goldsteins and to initiate a period of Hate — minutes, weeks, months or years.

Hillary Clinton is Trump's Emmanuel Goldstein.

— Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.